Monthly Archives: August 2012

Hunting the Porcini on the Glacier Moraine

A human friend joins us today in the Troll Woods. Invited for companionship. he repays with a mushroom hunter’s knowledge. Born in America of Sicilian immigrants, he brings an enthusiast’s excitement to the gathering of wild food.

We hadn’t started on a mushroom hunt but rather a morning walk under the newly appeared sun. Water backed up from a growing beaver dam flooded our chosen trail to force us into the Troll Woods where he discovers a Porcini mushroom (Boletus edulis) standing above the mossy ground.  Nearby we find tipped over Porcini look a likes that have gills that mark them as a different genus. Another hunter passed this way before us to grab the choicest mushrooms.

With a strong morning sun muscling its way to the forest floor I decide to take my friend home over a trackless section of the woods.  We can’t get lost as long as we keep the sun in our faces.

We move slowly over the soft moss covered ground, sometimes following faint deer trails or the heavy worn paths made by beavers. Other times its a ballet over and around tree trunks and branches. Aki stays with the mushroom hunter to show him the way when I move out of his sight. A gentleman, he thanks her each time.

It’s a slow, peace bringing task to follow the sun through these thick woods. We pass an indentation in the moss still steaming from the heat of the deer that just left it. This brings stories from my friend of other hikes and shared kayak trips.  An hour and more passes without notice until we regain the man made trail. It takes us to a burned area where a spider web of sinister beauty, backlit by the climbing sun, is the sole decoration in a fire blackened alder tree.  Nearby two huge Russula mushrooms, encouraged by the warming sun, push skyward. One wears a mossy cap.

Here we also find more Boletus mushrooms — enough for a lunch— and gather them up. Arriving at my friend’s home, we examine our find and discover blue dots forming in the mushroom flesh. They aren’t the delectable Porcini after all but a cousin not worth cooking. He shrugs and delivers a salad rich in fresh greens, olives and tomatoes. Tall bottles of oil and vinegar arrive next along with chunks of hard Italian cheese and a thin dried salami. Then he brings us thick brown hard bread. I smile for now there is no room on the table or stomachs for mushrooms.

Nagoonberries and the Smell of Death

The smell of death dominates this forest walk. That’s how it is along this river at the end of the salmon spawn. Just there, through that patch of river side spruce trees lie the rotting bodies of dog salmon as well as the gulls, ravens and eagles that feast on them.  Aki goes on alert when we hear a splash following by a new chorus of gull complaints—- all signs of a bear working the river shallows for late arriving salmon. We stay to the forest today not wanting a repeat of last year where Aki chased a fishing black bear up a tree and then into the forest.

This morning the grey rain of late August gave way to sun, which now backlights tree moss and understory foliage. While green dominates the forest my eye is drawn to the rare patches of reds and yellows produced by dying leaves. Leaving the usual trail we turn to an area of the forest where the Nagoonberry grows. A legend in the berry picker’s world, the segments of this dark red fruit are said to exceed all other berries in flavor.  I’ve tried in past summers to taste one but someone always manages to hoover them all up before I can find a ripe one. Today I pick two and find them too tart and without must after taste. Even this Highbush Cranberry, yet to be brought to peak flavor by a heavy frost, tastes better.

While the forest opens up to reveal a mountain of true beauty I puzzle on the worth of the common blueberry and the rare Nagoon.  The Nagoonberry, like gold and diamonds, is made valuable by its relative scarcity and the willing belief of the consumer.  The blueberry just tastes good.

Portaging to Tenakee Inlet

This morning a heavy fog blocks our view. Sunrise begins its demise.  Drinking morning coffee on the cabin deck the Captain and I are just able to make out the yearling brown bear fishing at the salmon stream mouth. Two of his elders, both making him look tiny, stir from makeshift beds in the stream side meadow and walk sluggishly into the woods. A small cloud of gulls forms around the young one, which at this early hour, annoys him. After a few half hearted attempts at grabbing a salmon he passes down the beach in front of the cabin and disappears into the fog.

Today we take the portage from Port Frederick to Tenakee Inlet. A friend ran into three habituated brown bears at the portage when he made this trip last May.  It was only with great effort that he and his two companions were able to keep the bears away from their food laden kayaks. In May bears spend much time grazing on beach grass at places like the portage. Little should keep them there this late into the salmon spawn. On this hope we push aside fear, pack the kayak and leave for the portage an hour before high tide.

It takes a 14 to 15 foot high tide in order to paddle all the way to the actual portage trail. Today we will only have 11 feet and expect to spend a long time moving the kayak and gear just to get to the trail.

In full sun we wind our way through a serpentine channel at the foot of Port Frederick. It leads us to a narrow tidal stream now too shallow to float the kayak with us in it. We line the boat for a few more minutes until it goes completely aground in the stream far from the portage. The stream braids into three channels. The Captain and I explore each until settling on one leading into a small pond. At its head a rough trail, marked with a metal diamond, leads into the woods. We unload the boat and I start carrying the food and gear along a bear trail stomped into the muddy grass lining the pond. While I make multiple trips from gear pile to trail head the Captain lines the kayak, its keel dragging in foul smelling black mud until he reaches the head of the pond. 

We pass through a section of blue berry bushes still laden with water from last night’s fog. This means no bears have recently passed this way.  In minutes the trail crests and we see through the woods a green meadow rather than the sparkle of salt water.  Pushing on we reach the meadow and walk across it to where a small stream enters another mud bottom pond. In a few days, when the high tide would crest at over 16 feet we could have easily paddled up the stream and across the pond to the actual portage trail.

We are both tired but aware that the more time spent making the portage the greater chance of an uncomfortable encounter with bears. I hang the food in a nearby spruce tree and find that it is surrounded by tall yellow cedars. Their pretty majesty  can’t delay our efforts so I grab some dry bags and hike with the Captain up the trail calling out a gentle warning to any bears that might be ahead. They hate nothing more than being surprised.


After dropping our load at the pond’s edge we start back for more, passing holes recently dug by bears hungary for the rice like roots of Chocolate Lilly plants. Hurrying on we make the several trips necessary to move the kayak and other gear to the pond, which is not deep enough to float us and the gear. The captain again has to line the boat along the pond shore while I use a paddle to keep it from grounding in the muddy pond side grass.

It’s been three hours now since the kayak went aground and we still have to move gear, food and boat over another land portage to Tenakee Inlet. The trail is short but muddy and in 90 minutes we are eating a delayed lunch along side a mountain lined fjord. Across the inlet we spot an island with a small stream nearby. We paddle to it with plans to make it our camp.  Tall tree covered domes rise from the inlet. To our right we can look into an intriguing wet land at the head of the inlet. Tomorrow, if the good weather continues we will explore it before starting the paddle up Inlet to the Tenakee Springs ferry terminal. 

Eight Fathom Bight Bear

The paddle to Chimney Rock takes up up Port Frederick toward Necka Bay.  The wind builds as we travel to produce small  waves. They present no problem until we approach the spit marking the passage into Necka Bay. We land to survey the passage around the spit, calling out in confident tones to any bear that might be sleeping in the tall grass bordering the beach. When none rises to our voices we hop out of the kayak and find recent bear sign.

The sun breaks out from the clouds to make the beach a warm and inviting place. The captains finds a sunny hollow at the point lined with more Bluebells of Scotland. From here he raises a couple of bars on his cell phone and makes a last call home.  There will be no more cell coverage until the ferry ride from Tenakee Springs to Juneau. While he calls I watch a fat black and yellow bumble bee climb in and out of the flower bells, completely disappearing on each foray into the flower.

After making a quick sketch of Chimney Rock  I join the captain in a survey of the passage into Necka Bay. We could make it in but would have a hard time on the return trip. Then an ebbing tide would be working against the wind to build a nasty little sea. It would be worse at the exposed spit. Saving the bay for the next trip we paddle down Port Frederick to the Forest Service cabin at Eight Fathom Bight. We saw out humpback whale heading up bay he was heading back to Hoonah. We never saw him again.

Wanting to pass through a choke point in the bay before the tide turned we paddle without rest. This flooding tide and tail wind gives us a nice push.  Waiting would mean fighting waves and current produced by the ebbing tide as it pushed through the choke point.

Just past the narrow spot we hear a waterfall and then see where a small stream enters the bay. Here we refill our water jugs and eat lunch washed down with clear stream water. Here also we watch the sun chase off the remaining clouds then sit quietly in the newly delivered warmth.

It’s an easy paddle down back to the Eight Bight Cabin where we will stay the night.  A cloud of white gulls erupts from a nearby stream as we approach the cabin, telling us that the stream holds spawning salmon and probably brown bears to eat them.

After helping to unpack and secure the kayak above the high tide line I put together a fishing rig while the captain heads over to the stream to stretch out on the gravel bank.  A yearling Brown Bear suddenly walks out of the brush to disturb his rest. We are downwind so are able to watch the bear from a respectful distance. From other bear tracks along the stream we know that other larger bruins are fishing the choice spots of the stream. They must have driven this young one here where deeper waters makes for tougher fishing.

The bear manages to display a wide range of emotion with body language as he tries different methods to dig a pink salmon out of the stream. Sometimes he looks like a playful cat with upraised bum and half submerged face. When that doesn’t work he tries batting a fish out of the water with his strong left paw.  Once he looked right at us with his weak eyes.

In time the bear forages a meal and we head back to the cabin for ours.

Breaking Camp One

Something wakes us early this morning—a complaining eagle or raven, surfacing whale, or just the end to rain. A whale does pass the camp while I’m drinking coffee, which I abandon to watch the big creature make two shallow dives before showing its flukes on a deeper one.

With the tide out we can walk all around this fortress like island. Under gray skies invaded by patches of blue I find a natural cave decorated by Bluebells of Scotland flowers as if it were an Irish worship grotto.  A different sort of pilgrim today I do a quick sketch and walk back to camp, passing a large round boulder along the way. As out of place as a child’s marble on the rim of flat tide land that rims the island, it could have been dropped by a giant bird or fallen out of a giant’s pocket.

Kayaking out of Hoonah

So much work getting ready for a kayak trip! Gear must be assembled and made to fit along with food for a week and clothes into waterproof “dry” bags. My paddling partner and I loaded all in the car, put the kayak atop of it and drove to the Alaska Marine Highway Terminal at 6 am.

We leave Juneau on the MV Le Conte. Low clouds obscure the glacier and its surrounding mountains which is just as well. We are too tired to stand on the rainy deck to watch our town slip away. In three hours we reach the Tlinght village of Hoonah on Chichagof Island. There, in a drizzle we carry gear and kayak off the ferry to a rocky path that leads down to the waters of Port Frederick. After filling a used gallon milk jug with water from the terminal we carry everything to the sea and begin to load the kayak as it floats near shore.

The sigh like exhale of a humpback whale diverts us from the task and we look up to watch it’s black back rise and then roll as it re submerges. The whale repeats this two more times before throwing its flukes skyward in a silent dive. Good start for the trip.

The whale comes and goes from our field of vision as we paddle toward the island where we plan to camp. Rain continues to fall from low clouds that seem to collapses over the green hills lining the shore. At first only golden seaweed lining the shore break the monopoly of grey and green. Then we begin to pass islands of rock worn into provocative shapes like castles and mansions. We stop near one, now stranded from the water by the low tide and eat a sad lunch of dry bread and peanut butter that is soon covered by a film of tiny biting midges (no-seemuns).

When spirits flagged a sea creature appears to lighten the mood. Often it is our new friend, the humpback whale swimming along for a bit before diving. Sometimes a pair of Dahl Porpoise streak past us while chasing down homeward bound salmon. The whale puts on a great show just before we reached our island goal. Over and over it throws itself from the water and sends up great splashes on each side of its body as it crashes back into the sea. We began to worry that it might inadvertently crush us with one his exuberant displays.  It returns beneath the sea as we round the island and pull out at a suitable spot on its back side.

Here no bugs bother us while we set up the tent, cook dinner, and use ropes to suspend the food bags from tree branches to keep them from the reach from the local brown bears. (grizzlies). The rain continues but so do chances to watch animals. Porpoise and the whale hunt for food within 50 meters of camp. Beyond them the waters of Port Frederick offer us passage to the portage where we will have to carry boat and gear over land to a beach on Tenakee Inlet. But that challenge is days away so we settle onto comfortable rocks on the beach to drink after dinner tea and watch the whale roll on his back just off shore. 

Somewhere the Sun Shines on the Unworthy

Somewhere the sun shines down on the unworthy — those so spoiled by a warm rich summer that they take blue skies and light for granted.  That place may be just over the border in Canada. Even trough my rain spotted glasses I can see a patch of pure blue North above the Juneau ice field.

Aki and have returned to this familiar trail through the old growth to tidelands. It’s harvest time in the woods where ripe fruit of red huckleberry and blueberry brush dangle toward the trail. Even the devil’s club sport inverted cones of bright red berries. Some of the thorny plants are turning autumn yellow. 

We reach the beach just as a raven chases a mature bald eagle from its roost. Job done the self satisfied raven settles in on a near by spruce limb and fills the air with croaks, trills, and disharmonic song.  While Aki searches an old campsite for leftovers, I look up Favorite Passage where tomorrow the MV LeConte will take a friend and I to Hoonah for the start of a week long kayak trip to Tenakee Springs.

I have hopes for the trip — that the rain will abate, we see untouched groves of the beautiful Yellow Cedar trees, the wind won’t work against the tides, and the brown bears will pass in the peace. I also hope that the tides and wind will carry away the stress of work and getting ready for such a trip.   

Settling for Diminutive Beauty

Aki and I climbed to this mountain meadow for a taste of natural grandeur but have to settle for glimpses of small beauty. Last night another Gulf of Alaska front jammed clouds against our mountains to obscure the peaks and dampened Chicken Ridge with rain.  I still find plenty of ground hugging beauty and Aki raced a snowshoe hare.

After getting over disappointment at the lost of sunshine, I’m free to appreciate the complex pattern formed by rain dropped on windblown grass and the magenta flowers — tiny bog rosemary, mysterious (to me) shoots of pink and white petals shaped into hands of prayer, and two late blooming shooting stars. Single stalks of Hooded Lady Tresses tower above the muskeg too far from the trail for me to smell their orchid scent.

On some disturbed ground near the trail I mistake a scattering of small mushrooms for diminutive daisies.  A snow shoe hare breaks from cover and tears down the trail. While I’m appreciating the hare’s efficient lope Aki takes after it, shedding her rain wrap in the process. Aki is fast but so is the hare, who has quite a head start.  The contestants disappear over a low hill, then Aki returns a little winded.  Good thing it wasn’t the Creggan White Hare.

If she were a child, I would lecture Aki, explaining that the hare has a hard enough time surviving on this mountain meadow without being chased by a poodle in fleece.  She might respond that she is only yielding to her DNA as a dog bred by the French for the hunt.

On the ride down mountain we spot a deer near the road fringe. With Aki staring at it, the deer boldly approaches the car, fixing me with a hard look. This is too much for Aki, who gives it a growl then watches the deer move slowly into the woods.

Driving Away the Storm

The sun left us a few days ago, after I finished eating blueberries along the Eagle River. Rain dominated Juneau since. With a promise of sun after this sorrow Aki and head take an early departure for the moraine. Low clouds begin lifting when we arrive and find every tree, bush, and flower carrying a heavy burden of rain water. 

Aki charges alone into the trail side woods to run after a squirrel over mossy ground and then bursts onto the trail ten feet in front of me. Apparently assuming that I didn’t wait for her return, she charges at full speed down the trail. When I whistle she stops on a dime and races back toward me. A few feet before reaching my feet she breaks back into the woods for a quick lap through the moss and then heads back to the car. Another whistle brings a dog panting with happiness to my side. Such a drama queen.

Life in a rain forest gives us a chance to be present for the moments when sudden sun light drives away the storm. Then the water drops that just minutes before depressed the forest’s beauty become vibrant bags of light. Shafts  break through the dying cover of grey to paint lakes in silver. Today, this is our morning.

Wanting to catch the beaver lands before the new sun brings wind to ripple the lakes, I lead Aki over the beaver dam bridge to the trail that circles Norton Lake. Aki cringes when we hear a series of slaps of a beaver tail. I find this a bit odd as she only showed fascination when we watched a beaver perform a series of tail slaps in the past. I listen for something scary but only hear the slaps and the boom of high caliber rifles of the early bird shooters at the gun range.

We watch a Greater Yellowlegs (Sandpiper) approach the water’s edge to stare at the water. He is only searching for food but appears to be admiring his reflection in the still calm pond. Overhead a trio of tourist filled helicopters fly overhead on the way to the sled dog camp on a nearby glacier. They fly over the beavers’ lands all summer without bothering the sandpiper or the beavers or even the bears who left so much scat on this trail.  They live and apparently thrive in a pocket of wilderness surrounded by our suburbs and the agents of industrial tourism. Aki and I are the only ones to mind the noise.

At a Moment of Transient Beauty

Aki and I arrive at this riverine meadow at a moment of transient beauty. Last night’s rain has coalesced into small sacks of water that still cling to the purple lupine flowers and their stalks. Weak sunlight manages to break through a grey canopy of low clouds to turn the drops into jewels.

Across the river four eagles have spaced themselves out on a driftwood log. As if performing as a drill team, they rise from the log one after another until only one remains. At first I attribute this as a display of eagle wisdom for a river and several hundred meters separate us from the birds. Only the one who stayed wore the white and brown feathers of a mature bird. The three that flew sport the mottled cloak of immature eagles. Then I noticed the mature bird’s posture and realized that he is drying his feathers.

We find more eagles and many ravens hanging by the river watching the corpses of  dead chum salmon lying on the trail. The fish rode the high tide into the meadow and could not find their way back to the river channel on the ebb. Some bird plucked out each fish’s eye. Otherwise they were intact. This surprises given all the scavengers about.

Something splashes in a tiny water course that drains the meadow. Aki breaks toward the noise and finds a half a dozen chum salmon striving forward. Unless they turn back to the river they will be stranded by the outgoing tide. The watercourse, which dead ends in a hundred meters goes dry at low tide. Aki approaches the fish cautiously as if to see if they want to play. When they splash ahead she jumps back and returns to my side.

The sun breaks through when we leave the meadow for an trail through old growth spruce where I feed on rain washed blue berries growing along the trail. Enjoying the bitter sweetness of berries eaten in a soon to disappear shaft of sunlight, I listen to a large school of salmon splashing along a nearby river gravel bar. A bear could easily pluck them from the shallows but we see no scat, tracks, or partially consumed fish bodies.  Many dead salmon lie on the gravel bar. None shows a mark of being touched by bear or bird. Near them I find a patch of drying mud that shows the tracks of squirming salmon that passed over the bar last night and a single print of a bear’s paw made when it turned on its heal to lunge for a fish.